Richard Nixon (1913-94), the 37th U.S. president, is best remembered as the only president ever to resign from office. Nixon stepped down in 1974, halfway through his second term, rather than face impeachment over his efforts to cover up illegal activities by members of his administration in the Watergate scandal. A former Republican congressman and U.S. senator from California, he served two terms as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) in the 1950s. In 1960, Nixon lost his bid for the presidency in a close race with Democrat John F. Kennedy (1917-63). He ran for the White House again in 1968 and won. As president, Nixon's achievements included forging diplomatic ties with China and the Soviet Union, and withdrawing U.S. troops from an unpopular war in Vietnam. However, Nixon's involvement in Watergate tarnished his legacy and deepened American cynicism about government.
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Did You Know?
While serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Richard Nixon won large amounts of money playing poker. He used these winnings to help fund his first political campaign in 1946.
Education and Early Political Career
Richard Milhous Nixon was born on January 9, 1913, in Yorba Linda, California. He was the second of five sons of Francis Anthony Nixon (1878-1956), who struggled to earn a living running a grocery store and gas station, and his wife, Hannah Milhous Nixon (1885-1967). .Nixon absorbed his parents' discontent with their working-class circumstances and developed a strong sense of ambition..
He attended Whittier College, where he excelled as a debater and was elected president of the student body before graduating in 1934. Three years later, he earned a law degree from Duke University, where he was head of the student bar association and graduated near the top of his class. After Duke, he returned to Whittier, California, and began working as an attorney. In 1940, Nixon married Thelma Catherine "Pat" Ryan (1912-93), whom he met while participating in a local theater group. The couple had two daughters, Patricia (1946-) and Julie (1948-). When America entered World War II (1939-45), Nixon joined the U.S. Navy and served as an operations officer in the Pacific.
Following the war, Nixon launched his political career in 1946 when he defeated a five-term Democratic incumbent to represent his California district in the U.S. House of Representatives. As a congressman, Nixon served on the House Un-American Activities Committee and rose to national prominence by leading a controversial investigation of Alger Hiss (1904-1996), a well-regarded former State Department official who was accused of spying for the Soviet Union in the late 1930s.
Nixon was re-elected to Congress in 1948 and two years later, in 1950, won a seat in the U.S. Senate.
An Unsuccessful Bid for the Presidency
Although Nixon's attacks on alleged Communists and political opponents alarmed some people, they increased his popularity among conservative Republicans. In 1952, General Dwight Eisenhower selected the 39-year-old first-term senator to be his vice presidential running mate. A few months after accepting the nomination, Nixon became the target of a negative campaign that raised questions about money and gifts he allegedly received from industry lobbyists. Nixon answered these charges in his famous "Checkers" speech, claiming that the only gift he ever accepted was a puppy named Checkers for his young daughter. The speech proved effective and preserved Nixon's spot on the ticket.
Eisenhower and Nixon won the election of 1952 and were re-elected in 1956. In 1960, Nixon claimed the Republican presidential nomination, but lost one of the closest elections in American history to U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The turning point of the campaign came in the first-ever nationally televised presidential debate. During the broadcast, Nixon appeared pale, nervous and sweaty compared with his tan, well-rested and vigorous opponent.
The loss to Kennedy dealt a terrible blow to Nixon's ego. He claimed that the media disliked him and had slanted campaign coverage in favor of his handsome and wealthy opponent. Nixon returned home to California, where he practiced law and launched a campaign for governor in 1962. When he lost this election as well, many observers believed that his political career was over. As a disgusted Nixon told reporters, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
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